6 Ways to Improve Mental Health Without Therapy

Affordable mental health care options outside of therapy

Mental illness is common in the U.S., with nearly 1 in 5 adults living with a mental illness in 2020. But only about 20% of people living with mental illness are being actively treated for their condition.

People are sometimes unable to commit to therapy or other treatments for a variety of reasons, including lack of health insurance or a shortage of care providers. There is also a recent surge of people seeking mental health services, resulting in long waiting lists.

With rising costs, issues accessing care, or long wait times, you may wish to seek alternative therapeutic options. Read on to learn more about complementary therapies and other strategies to improve mental health without counseling.

Woman stretching with cat in her lap.

Jessie Casson / Getty Images

Complementary Therapies

Complementary treatments are approaches to health that occur alongside conventional medical treatment. Studies show that complementary therapies positively impact mental health disorders, particularly anxiety and depression.

Some complementary approaches to consider include:

  • Yoga: In a 2020 study, researchers found that yoga as a complementary therapy is effective in both managing and reducing anxiety and depression. Researchers suggested daily practice, but indicated more research needs to be done to determine exactly how many times per week is most effective for anxiety and depression.
  • Dance: The flow of somatic (body-based) movements create additional outlets for expression and emotion, which may bring new insights that might not be as available through language-based talk therapy. Synchronizing with your own physical sensations may help your physical and mental health.
  • Art: According to one study, art (particularly art therapy) can offer significant benefits to minimize symptoms and maximize the functioning of those living with mental illness.
  • Music: Research indicates that music therapy is a valuable method of support for people living with mental illness and mental disorders.
  • Meditation: Evidence-based research supports that meditation reduces stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and cardiovascular risk.
  • Exercise: Physical activity has been proven to help improve mental health symptoms. A large 2018 study of 1.2 million Americans found that individuals who exercised experienced around 43% fewer days of poor mental health per month than those who did not exercise.

Cost-Saving Strategies

Cost is already a barrier to obtaining therapy, so when complementary therapies add an additional cost burden, there are creative ways to incorporate self-care methods with low or no-cost options.

  • Community centers: Check out your local community center for free or low-cost yoga classes, exercise classes, and even art or dance classes.
  • Online: There are numerous free exercise, dance, yoga, and art offerings online.
  • Local parks: Local parks sometimes offer free yoga classes and may even offer other exercise classes for reduced or no cost.
  • Churches: Churches sometimes offer exercise and yoga classes for free or with minimal cost.
  • Libraries: Head to your local library and see what community offerings they may have.

Mental Health Apps

From mindfulness tips to deep breathing to cognitive behavioral therapy techniques, there are numerous mental health apps worth exploring, and many of them are free.

  • Calm: Includes meditation, relaxation music, sleep stories to help you fall asleep, and other features designed to help with anxiety.
  • Headspace: Includes mindfulness-based guided meditations, sleep stories and music, and mood-boosting workouts.
  • Moodfit: Includes cognitive behavioral exercises to process intrusive and distorted thoughts, and helps you track your mood over time.
  • MoodMission: This evidence-based app gives tips and strategies to help cope with low moods and feelings of anxiety.
  • Happify: Includes science-based games and activities to help you overcome negative thoughts, reduce anxiety, and manage burnout.
  • Shine: Designed as an inclusive, daily self-care app that includes daily check-ins, meditations, and community support for BIPOC individuals.

When to See a Therapist

When mental health symptoms begin to disrupt your daily life and functioning, it's a sign that you should consider seeking professional treatment. Remember that this is not a sign of weakness or lack of willpower.

If you are experiencing any of the following, consider contacting a mental health provider:

  • Insomnia, trouble sleeping, excessive sleeping, or nightmares
  • Difficulty getting up or accomplishing routine daily tasks
  • Loss of interest in activities that you usually enjoy or isolating from others
  • Thoughts of suicide or self-harm

You can also contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline online or call 1-800-662-4357 for more information on how to find support and treatment options specific to your geographic area.

Journaling

Writing down what is bothering you can be a helpful therapeutic tool. It may even reveal new insights.

In a study of mothers under stress while supporting adult children with substance use issues, researchers found that journaling improved their emotional well-being, reduced stress, and offered new insight and changes in perspective.

Another study indicated that journaling can relieve stress and enhance reflection and perspective. It has become a frequent tool for medical residency programs, due to high rates of burnout among medical residents.

Self-Help Books

Self-help books offer tools and insights for mental well-being. Selecting a book can be tricky, because each person experiences them differently. A book that may change one person's life could be a dull read to someone else.

Here's a few tips on finding a fit in self-help books:

  • Get recommendations: Ask a therapist, counselor, or another mental health professional what they would recommend for you to read.
  • Read reviews: Lots of online sites have detailed reviews that can give you an idea of what others think of the book.
  • Sneak-peek: Take some time at the library or bookstore to thumb through the book to see if it will be a good fit. Check online for chapter downloads or an online view of the first few pages to see if the book is what you're looking for.

Support From Friends and Family

Studies consistently show that support and connection are crucial to our mental well-being. Connections with friends and family are important for mental health because they provide a sense of meaning, connection, support, and purpose.

One study indicates that building, restoring, and sustaining our social networks and connections support mental health and can also help overcoming loneliness.

Pet Therapy

According to research, pets can help reduce both physiological and mental stress, and improve anxiety levels.

If you don't have a pet, there are other ways to make emotional connections with animals, including:

  • Volunteer: Local animal shelters are often in need of sponsors and volunteers to help care for the animals.
  • Humane society: Contact your local humane society for ways you can help with animals in your community.
  • Fostering pets: If you want a pet but can't make a long-term commitment, perhaps fostering pets and helping re-home them might be an option.
  • Pet sitting: Consider becoming a pet sitter so you can spend time with pets without the long-term commitment.

If you have a pet, make the extra effort to spend time slowing down and connecting with them. Animals are very much in the present moment and can help bring you there too.

Summary

People may be unable to participate in or commit to therapy for a variety of reasons, including costs, lack of insurance, and growing demand. Alternative options to therapy include exercise (like yoga and dance), meditation, art, music, journaling, and reading. Mental health apps are available to help support you as well. If available to you, animals can also be a great resource for emotional connection.

A Word From Verywell

When therapy isn't an option, there are are other methods that can complement mental health services. Activities like yoga, meditation, journaling and more have been proven to help improve emotional well-being.

If you are in need of mental health services and cannot afford them, most communities offer free and low-cost community services. Contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for more information on how to find support and treatment options in your area.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why is mental health important?

    Mental health encompasses our psychological, emotional, and social well-being. It's important because it impacts how we feel, think, and behave. Mental health also impacts how we manage our stress and emotions. Finding the right strategies and techniques that work for you can improve your overall well-being.

  • What are the key signs of stress affecting mental health?

    Stress can impact both mental health as well as physical health. Stress may be impacting your mental well-being if you experience:

    • Strong emotional responses and/or feelings of sadness, numbness, worry, frustration, fear, and anger
    • Changes in energy, desire to do things you normally do, interests, and appetite
    • Trouble concentrating or making decisions
    • Difficulty sleeping, having insomnia, and/or nightmares
    • Physical reactions including headaches, body aches, joint aches, stomach aches, and skin rashes
    • Urge to engage with substances such as alcohol, tobacco, or drugs
  • How does mental health affect physical health?

    Mental health has an impact on physical health. For example, depression increases the risk for several health issues including diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Further, having a chronic health condition can increase the risk of having a mental illness.

  • What’s the difference between therapy and counseling?

    Counseling and therapy are frequently used interchangeably, and there can be some overlap, which can lead to confusion. There is, however, a slight distinction between the two terms:

    • Counseling: In general, counseling often focuses on specific issues. It may help a person address a particular problem. In some cases, counseling may be more short-term than therapy.
    • Therapy: Therapy may be more long-term and focus on a wider variety of issues. It may address patterns in behaviors and past childhood issues.

    However, all of this can vary widely among mental health practitioners. It may be best to ask a potential mental health provider about their therapeutic style.

    Studies indicate that the relationship between therapist and patient is what has the most impact on outcomes, independent of the type of therapeutic approach. So whether it's therapy or counseling, short-term or long-term, or something in between, what matters most is how you connect with the therapist.



Was this page helpful?
16 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About mental health.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mental health treatment among adults: United States, 2020.

  3. National Alliance on Mental Illness. Mental health by the numbers.

  4. Nanthakumar C. Yoga for anxiety and depression – a literature reviewJMHTEP. 2020;15(3):157-169. doi:10.1108/JMHTEP-09-2019-0050

  5. Saumaa H. Dance therapeutics: movement as a path toward healing. Alternative and Complementary Therapies. 2019;25(5):238-240. doi:10.1089/act.2019.29238.has

  6. Chiang M, Reid-Varley WB, Fan X. Creative art therapy for mental illness. Psychiatry Research. 2019;275:129-136. doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2019.03.025

  7. Montánchez Torres ML, Juárez Ramos V, Martínez Suárez PC, Alonso García S, Torres Mendoza M. Benefits of using music therapy in mental disordersJ Biomusic Eng. 2016;4(2). doi:10.4172/2090-2719.1000116

  8. Witusik A, Pietras T. Music therapy as a complementary form of therapy for mental disorders. Pol Merkur Lekarski. 2019;47(282):240-243.

  9. Chételat G, Lutz A, Arenaza-Urquijo E, Collette F, Klimecki O, Marchant N. Why could meditation practice help promote mental health and well-being in aging?. Alz Res Therapy. 2018;10(1):57. doi:10.1186/s13195-018-0388-5

  10. Chekroud SR, Gueorguieva R, Zheutlin AB, et al. Association between physical exercise and mental health in 1·2 million individuals in the USAbetween 2011 and 2015: a cross-sectional study. The Lancet Psychiatry. 2018;5(9):739-746. doi:10.1016/S2215-0366(18)30227-X

  11. Kim-Godwin YS. Beliefs and experience of journaling in mothers of adult children with substance use problems: a pilot study. Journal of Addictions Nursing. 2021. doi:10.1097/jan.0000000000000410

  12. Sunder T, Diemer G, Sunder V. Resident experiences with journaling. TMF. 2019;20(1). doi:10.29046/TMF.020.1.016

  13. Haslam SA, Haslam C, Cruwys T, et al. Social identity makes group-based social connection possible: implications for loneliness and mental health. Current Opinion in Psychology. 2022;43:161-165. doi:10.1016/j.copsyc.2021.07.013

  14. Ein N, Li L, Vickers K. The effect of pet therapy on the physiological and subjective stress response: a meta-analysis. Stress and Health. 2018;34(4):477-489. doi:10.1002/smi.2812

  15. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Coping with stress.

  16. Society for the Advancement of Psychotherapy. Conclusions and recommendations of the interdivisional (APA divisions 12 & 29) task force on evidence-based therapy relationships.